Schools Reconnecting, one step at a time

Photo: Meredith O'Shea

Paul Newson has been a proud union member for his 20-plus-year career. “I come from a family of educators,” he says. “Both my parents are teachers, and two of my sisters too, all in the government system, and all are AEU members.”

His family’s focus on public education and the power of unionism has profoundly affected how he has approached his career and choice of workplaces, including a three-and-a-half-year stint at Berendale School for secondary-aged students with intellectual disability. 

He is now principal of Oakwood School, with campuses across Melbourne’s South-East and the Mornington Peninsula, overseeing their mission to reconnect secondary school students who have disengaged from learning by working intensively to meet their personal needs. 

Paul’s job requires him to make big decisions daily, but he’s always open to negotiation to get the best results for everyone. “As part of my philosophy around supporting young people and my colleagues, I do that within the framework of collective bargaining and collaboration,” Paul says.

The students at Oakwood need more support to get the most out of their education. “They’ve usually had some sort of significant trauma in their life and have been out of school for six months or longer,” Paul says. “But they probably want to be at school and learning.”

It is his responsibility to figure out the clearest pathways. “We provide an environment where students continue to do that, with a trauma-informed approach to learning,” he says.

“They’d stopped learning, and we’re helping them to restart.”

“They’ve been at a school, and they’ve probably tried and tried and tried, and it hasn’t worked for them for various reasons. So, what we do, as educators, is start with a slow induction.”

Easing students into the school, gradually introducing them to the culture over an extended induction period, avoids setting them up to fail. “We also work with wraparound services like Headspace, Allied Health, and Family Services Australia, so we learn a bit more about that student and help build up their confidence so they can come into our classrooms and continue learning,” Paul says.

“There are obviously individual stories, but we make sure that what we provide is consistent and predictable.”

Paul and his staff work closely with students and associated services to create individualised learning plans. “And our classes have no more than ten students, with the focus on literacy, numeracy, health, physical education and positive behaviours,” Paul says.

The job is rewarding, “because you know that every student attending our school couldn’t beforehand,” he adds. “They’d already stopped learning, and we’re helping them to restart.”

“What I’m doing right now is absolutely where I need to be, and I’m focused on where we can take it from here.”

An independent evaluation of the school conducted in 2018 identified clear evidence of effectiveness in re-engagement, achievement in learning, pathways to the future, and student wellbeing. It also noted exemplary trauma-informed practice, student support networks, the gradual induction process, evidence-based teaching and learning practices, and organisational reflection. The high-quality relationships between staff, students, parents/carers and external professionals were also praised.

“There was a significant, above-80% proof of positive pathways for students,” Paul says. “So, we know the model works. And I think part of my role, coming in as the overarching principal, is now how do we strengthen what we do? How can we grow this model and share our expertise?”

It’s been a career-long passion. “When I started teaching at Brunswick Secondary College, I gravitated toward the students who needed extra support, and I’ve brought that focus with me everywhere I’ve worked,” Paul says. That includes as an education consultant offering his insights to schools in New York and Chicago. “What I’m doing right now is absolutely where I need to be, and I’m focused on where we can take it from here.”

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